Sunday, December 26, 2010

What does design have to do with painting?

As crazy as the version on the left seems, it's not far off from something I see fairly often:
thoughtlessly placed colors and values, ruining a perfectly fine drawing
Many of the students who take my painting class at BYU have limited training in painting.  Because of this, I expect to find a lot of structure or technique-related problems.  Surprisingly, while those other problems sometimes show up, the flaws that hurt students' paintings the most are usually design problems!

Some things I see all the time:
- A badly-designed drawing ruining what would otherwise be a fine painting
- Poorly-designed values resulting in visual chaos
- Unappealing renders of character designs that look great as drawings
- Ugly color schemes
- Workable color schemes ruined by poor distribution of colors
- Weak or confusing value/color composition
- Arbitrary or default decision-making, resulting in a generic image

While good structure and technique are essential up to a point, design seems to affect most whether or not a painting is successful and appealing.  The problem with design is that while the tenets are simple, the principles are so interconnected and expressive that there are endless ways to convey any single idea using completely different design principles. 

Because of this, implementing good design into painting isn't a simple thing to learn.  I've studied design a lot, yet I still struggle with some pretty basic things all the time.  I confess this is part of the reason why I want to do this series of posts.  If I can work through some of these complex ideas some more, maybe I'll get better.  If not, at least some of you will get a peek into how I think about art as I work.

Now that I've introduced the subject, we're going to dig into specifics.  We'll systematically break down each of the above subjects, in addition to some other things that are affected by design in painting: texture, silhouette, dimensionality, and communication of ideas or emotion.


  1. This is going to be awesome! Can't wait!

  2. Very interesting position. I've followed your blog for some time and have -tried- to apply what you share, that's why I'm happy to see you'll post more information about design and how to achieve pleasing images.
    Good luck on 2011, btw!

  3. I can't wait to read on... I'm sure the things you share will help me improve!

  4. *straps on seatbelt* let's go!

    i'm proud to have provided many a bad painting during class for you :D

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  6. Sounds great! Looking forward to this!

  7. I've been struggling with that lately as well, I'm quite glad I've followed you on here.

  8. Great, looking forward to it!

  9. interesting, thanks for sharing!

  10. Yep, I can definitely say that I struggle with all of these things. It can be so challenging to put all the principles together in just the right way.

    Can't wait for the next post!

  11. I would say I struggle with all those things (although I definitely improved thanks to your class.) VERY excited for this series!

  12. I'm extremely eager for these

  13. Anonymous8:33 AM

    Really looking forward to these coming posts! Thank you for taking the time to put them together.

  14. Anonymous9:36 AM

    i don't think the left has so much of a problem with "thoughtlessly placed colors" as much as a problem with colors being far too saturated.

    the values thing is spot on. the character should have the highest value range followed by the stove+pie and then the wall and shelves.

    i don't like the haze the image on the right has. there's also a loss of value range overall. most of all on her dress.
    the left image most certainly needs a smaller range in the background (lady's range > stove's range > wall + shelf range)
    the overall range loss makes the image seem a bit more flat and the much smaller range on her dress kind of pushes her body into the background a bit.

    blah blah blah ramble ramble ramble
    i think the image on the right works better overall but it's still got some issues of it's own.

    granted some (or all) of the things i don't like about it are simply personal taste or a difference in what kind of atmosphere different people would aim for. like the hazy look for instance makes it seem kind of musty/smoky/dusty. that could have been what you wanted but it isn't where i'd have gone with the image.

  15. OOoh I want soo badly to attend to your class! Since there is an geographical impossibility, I'll keep stalking the blog! I can't wait for the new posts!

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  17. Anonymous: That's the beautiful thing about design: it's dependent on you having goals, intentions, and personal taste; but even more importantly it's about analyzing the tastes of your audience and delivering something that they would like. So if you were my intended audience for the right image, then would be a design failure because you find it only marginally more appealing than the left image. But the image was for the Avalanche blog, and so I did it in a style that would appeal to people who like Avalanche's art style.

    Also, there is a difference between oversaturation and thoughless color placement, but this image has both problems. I do want to talk about that more in a later post.

  18. Thanks for showing the comparision. What a difference the correct combination of value, line, and color make!

  19. Great Sam ,
    Im agree with your post ,
    Perhaps , the most important in an illustration is the design, (the idea), the other things are important ,but they´re just adornments.
    Thanks again for to share with us Sam , you´re the best teacher that we can have.


  20. Anonymous4:44 PM

    i wouldn't say it would have been a failure if it were for me instead of the Avalanche blog. i'd still have been happy with it. after all it is still a great image.

    i likely wouldn't have seen it next to the other image so i may not have even thought about the haze to start with and i certainly wouldn't have thought about the drop in value range on her dress.

    the the things i don't like about it are small things in comparison to the blatant problems in the left image.

    guess i just tend to phrase things in a way that sounds worse than i mean.

    i'm not entirely sure what you mean by by thoughtless color placement unless it has to do with readability and things like contrasting colors next to each other making a stray focal point. at any rate i'm sure i'll learn something. color isn't a strong suit of mine. =)

  21. Lew Bridcoe7:43 AM

    this intro alone has teached me lots :D

  22. Oh, honey - until you have me as a student, you haven't really even CRACKED the depth of the problems that you could see.

    Design, of course, will be integral. Interesting how all the elements interact and affect each other - color spaces, shadow elements, lighting requirements - simple areas of shape that balance or unbalance = but I'm not sure you can teach those things. I honestly think that the skills for this, as are the skills for music or teaching or writing, are pretty well innate. If they aren't there, no amount of training will make up for that.

  23. Can´t wait to read more. Happy 2011

  24. I see in the image of the left also, the problem that is so hard to grow out of. The need to make every detail stand on its own. Each detail screams for attention, vibrant, shining and full bodied. Weather its meant as a player or a prop. When the full range of value is used on each feature (even on the independent parts of a single character), the image flattens out like a minted coin.
    "Lighting perspective" (if thats a term), is broken. The miriad of players compete for attention and a place in Z space til the image is blown out. The back, mid and foreground all going lightest and darkest in lots of confusing places.
    Itd be nice to talk some on how to triage what needs to be a visual priority and what not, to better bite the bullet and not overpaint.
    To get a better sense of depth by not overestimating the importance of details that NEED to fade in the background. Im glad to find folks wanting to talk shop meaningfully! Happy new year!

  25. Ooo soo excited! Such an interesting post! Thank you ever so much for sharing!!

  26. Looking forward to more... It's nice to learn something from you even though I was never able to take your class at BYU before I left.

  27. Great topic. Sorry that I'm late to post. :)
    I agree with what Anonymous was saying about personal taste being a key factor in which image is more appropriate. The image on the left could use a lot of value adjustment and desaturation of background object colors, but otherwise I think the colors are fun and playful, as if for a children's book (I understand you were aiming ultimately for Avalanche's art style).
    The fact that a woman with green hair would wear an awful purple dress, tells us something about her personality (she looks like an eccentric school teacher, at whom the young students would love to poke fun). In comparison, the image on the right looks more like a formal society portrait, which is fine, if that's what the artist / audience wants. I think in my own painting, I might lean towards trying to make the image too "realistic" (as in the image on the right) and I've wondered if that is a flaw of mine. I'd like to loosen up and be more free with the color, perhaps to the point of abstraction. Well, just my thoughts. Keep up the inspiring work!

  28. Michael: You and anonymous are right, but it's not so much "personal taste" as "collective tase" when you're talking about designing for an audience. You look for something that you will like, that your art director will like, and that most of the people you're "catering to" will like.

  29. This is new ? I didn't see it yet :S

  30. This is a perfect post, Sam. I absolutely love how you NAILED the so-close-yet-so-far difference between tasteful values/color and something not thought through well enough. I just linked this post on my @paintFACT blog on twitter :)


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